For the past eleven years, the Simon Wiesenthal Center has published an annual report on the efforts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice all over the world.
The initiative started in 2002 in the wake of a query/suggestion by IBA reporter Elli Wohlgelernter about a "Most Wanted" list of Holocaust perpetrators and evolved into a comprehensive compilation of statistics on convictions and indictments, as well as new and ongoing investigations, and a "report card" which assesses the record of every country which is, should, or might be involved in the issue, along with the requisite list of the most prominent criminals at large who might still be alive and those most likely to be brought to trial during the coming year.
In theory, we try to publish the findings every Yom Hashoa, and that is why the report usually deals with the "year" from April 1 until the March 31 before Holocaust memorial day. But invariably, not all the government agencies, which are supposed to supply the pertinent information in response to our questionnaire, send their answers on time, and thus our full report is being issued this week in conjunction with International Holocaust Remembrance Day, as opposed to Yom Hashoa.
During the past decade in which the report has been issued, it has fulfilled several important functions.
The first is obviously to document all the results being achieved in the field. Although the subject of Nazi war criminals gets more than its share of media attention, relatively little is reported on the majority of the cases, either because of the relatively low rank of the defendants, or the venue of the trials (most cases in Eastern Europe are routinely ignored by the major media outlets in Western Europe and North and South America), unless a case has some sort of sensational component.
A second purpose is to make clear to all the countries involved in the issue that their activity, or more likely lack thereof, is being closely monitored and publicized.
An interesting example in this regard was the recent decisions by Norway (in 2008) and Sweden (in 2010) to cancel their statutes of limitations on cases of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity which prevented them from investigating, let alone prosecuting, Nazi war criminals. As a result, both countries received a failing grade in our reports year after year.
Unfortunately, the changes in the laws were not made retroactive and thus as far as Norwegian and Swedish Nazi collaborators, and there were numerous cases of local collaborators in both countries, especially in Norway which was occupied by the Nazis, the issue is finished, but at least they will able to prosecute criminals from more recent cases of genocide and ethnic cleansing without the previous time limitations.
Another important result is to prove that it is still possible to bring the perpetrators of Holocaust crimes to justice. In that regard, the statistics in our latest report are illuminating.
During the period from April 1, 2011 until March 31, 2012, ten Nazi war criminals were convicted - nine in Italy and one in Germany - a figure five times higher than for the previous year. Since we began keeping statistics on this subject (from January 1, 2001 until March 31, 2012), there have been ninety-nine successful legal decisons against Nazi war criminals, and eighty-nine new indictments filed, six during the previous year. And although there was a decline in the number of new investigations initiated, the number of ongoing investigations as of April 1, 2012 was 1,138 in ten different countries, a figure which leaves room for guarded optimism that at least several addditional war criminals will be held accountable for their crimes in the coming years.
All of the above clearly demonstrate that it is still possible to bring Nazi war criminals to justice and in fact, the moral and judicial basis to do so remain as convincing as ever and can basically be summarized as follows:
1. The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the killers. The fact that they have hereto eluded justice does not alter their criminal responsibility.
2. Old age should not afford protection for those who committed such heinous crimes. The fact that a person reaches the age of 85 or 90 does not turn a murderer into a Righteous Gentile.
3. The obligation of our generation to the victims is to make an honest effort to find their killers, who murdered innocent civilians just because they were categorized as "enemies of the Reich."
4. The continued effort to bring Holocaust perpetrators to justice sends a powerful message to potential genocidists, that if you commit such terrible crimes, even decades later there will be those trying to find you and make you pay for your crimes. Unfortunately, far too many of those who committed the crimes of the Shoa escaped justice, which can only encourage and inspire today's neo-Nazis and anti-Semites.
5. The prosecution of Nazi war criminals, when conducted properly, are the best history lesson available and an important tool in the fight against Holocaust denial, distortion and revisionism.
And in conclusion, one last point. I am often asked whether in view of the many years which have passed since they committed their crimes as young men and women, the criminals are presently not sorry for what they did. That is, in theory, an interesting question and one which could be strengthened by the enormous amount of information currently available on the Holocaust.
Unfortunately, in my experience, I have never encountered a case of a Nazi who expressed regret or remorse and was willing to confess to his or her crimes. In that respect, these are the last people on earth to deserve any sympathy, since they had none for their innocent victims.
On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, that is an important message that should be internalized all over the world.
Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of its Israel Office, as well as the author of the Center's annual report on the worldwide investigation and prosecution of Nazi war criminals, which can be read at: www.operationlastchance.org His latest book Operation Last Chance; One Man's Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice (Palgrave/Macmillan) has been published in seven languages.